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Industry Experience can be Overrated

I recently co-facilitated a SACCO member education day where my co-facilitator, Cathy Muringo of Experience Mitumba Bales, shared her experience about quitting employment for business. She started off her working life as a worker in a beauty products processing factory. She later transitioned to sales and marketing within the same company before later moving on to another (newly established) company in the same role. She worked diligently in her role and was able to build the new company’s brand name and client base. She resigned once the employer started mistreating her once they realized that she was expectant.  At the time of resignation, she had not secured another job neither did she have any other source of income.

The disappointment of being mistreated by an employer whose brand she had helped build from scratch made Cathy decide never to seek employment again. To add salt to this injury, the employer also withheld her last month’s working salary thereby denying her much needed income and potential business start-up capital. At first, she thought about taking time off work, enjoy motherhood, and thereafter launch her business career. However, after 2 months at home, boredom drove her into venturing out in search of a business opportunity.

With only KES 3,000 in start-up capital and no business experience, Cathy joined hands with a friend and ventured into the mitumba (second hand) clothes business. She walked from her home in Denholm Estate to Korogocho Market in Nairobi – approximately 6 kilometers – where with the aid of another friend who was already in the business, they bought the highest quality selection of the second hand clothes, commonly referred to as “camera.” Since she had not yet bought clothes for her unborn baby, she first selected some items out of the new stock for her baby then sold the rest at a profit. She repeated the same cycle over subsequent weeks until she had enough stock of clothes for her unborn baby. She also ensured that her business capital never got depleted.

To grow her business, Cathy decided to acquire a shop. She was able to raise one month rent and deposit through soft loans from her friends. Her first piece of furniture at the shop was a coffee table she brought from her house. She continued spreading her stock on the table until she was able to build shelves through profit retention. The growth of her business stalled after she proceeded on maternity leave and left an employee to run the shop.

Three months after delivery, Cathy resumed her job and decided to explore another source of supplies. She therefore approached a friend who introduced her to Gikomba market – he already had experience in the market – where she was able to buy at a lower price compared to Korogocho. Later on, she was introduced to Australians who had set up shop in Kenya as mitumba wholesalers from whom she bought her first bale. This first bale ended up as a disappointment since the quality of clothes was much lower than her expectations and would probably not sell to her clientele. She was however able to negotiate a return of the clothes in exchange for higher quality ones albeit only after paying additional cash. She thereafter worked for the wholesalers as a marketer, a role she later came to regret due to low commission payments but appreciated due to the exposure she got in the sector and business in general.

Cathy’s business grew and has since grown to the extent that she is now a fully established wholesaler and an employer in her own right. Her story reminds me of the many job advertisements that require “experience in a similar position.” Some employers also place a premium on experience during recruitment and would never shortlist a candidate without experience in the same industry and position. In an interview panel I sat in around 2010. an interviewer questioned a candidate’s ability to work as a Branch Manager due to his “lack of experience” in credit despite the fact that, as an Operations Manager, he was a member of the Branch Credit Committee and was also sitting in for the Branch Manager in his absence. I was also once denied an opportunity for an interview as a Relationship Manager in a bank due to “lack of experience.” Later on in my career, I worked as Branch Manager a role which was for all intents and purposes, a Senior Relationship Manager’s position. This overemphasis on experience has led many to hold back their dreams both in paid employment and in business.

Experience is often overrated. Cathy ventured into the second hand clothes business with no experience at all and she has been able to grow into the level of a wholesaler in 7 years. She learnt on the job and she has no other major bad experience apart from the low quality first bale she bought. Without the experience, she was also able to resolve the matter amicably with the supplier, leant her lesson and became stronger. In addition to Cathy, Nelson Mandela who led South Africa as President despite lack of Public Service experience. Joshua Oigara also led KCB Bank as Group CEO after taking over within 2 years after taking up his first job in the banking sector as KCB Group’s Chief Finance Officer.  Experience should therefore not prevent you from pursuing your dreams since you can learn on the job as well as use other people’s experience. In other words, experience is the best teacher but it does not have to be your own experience.

Dr. Weru Mwangi is the CEO & Lead Consultant at Ultimate Management Solutions, a firm specializing in training & consultancy in Finance, Governance, Strategy, Risk Management and Leadership Development.  He can be contacted on weru@umslgroup.com  

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